Tuesday, January 31, 2017

All About Grammar in 700 Words--Yes, That Sounds Doable (Laura)

I have found that I'm a break-the-rules kind of person when it comes to my writing. Which is funny to me because I consider myself to be fairly structured with my work, and life in general, and tend to like preserving traditions that make sense as opposed to changing just to change. Not exactly a rattle-the-cages type. On the other hand, my organization style is a creative one, rather than stringent and carefully measured. A style that makes sense to me but perhaps not to others.

This is where rules come in. Rules in language, for example, help us communicate better and cross bridges.

My awareness of these rules started at a young age, while I watched NFL football with my dad--the way most people learn about grammar. My dad was an aircraft mechanic who used to tear apart sports commentators for using grammar incorrectly according to him. (Usually not John Madden or Al Michaels, though--he was cool with them.) In particular, my dad always hated the word snuck. In fact, I sometimes imagine him catching my teenage self disclosing to a friend over the phone how "I snuck out of the house last night." I imagine the anger, the cold accusing stare.

"You WHAT?" he would say, revealing himself listening from the shadows--in his rocking chair. (Just go with it. Dreams never make sense.)

Timidly, I would respond, "Um, I mean I sneaked out of the house last night?"

He would breathe a sigh of relief and return to his newspaper. Contented.

My dad is a very sweet-hearted person, and I don't mean to make him out to be anything less. He just believes grammar should remain what he was taught.

It didn't matter to him then that the rule has evolved to accommodate snuck and that it's acceptable to use with consistency. Both sneaked and snuck are published in books (sometimes inconsistently), but snuck seems to have actually become much more common in the United States.

My grammar professor in college was from Brazil and Argentina and spoke English as a third language. She also taught rhetoric and a topic she called "Englishes"--the idea that there is more than one English and that the language must constantly adapt because it is used by so many people throughout the world and across cultures. I learned from this professor about prescriptivism, the belief in strict adherence to traditional grammar rules, and descriptivism, which explores the reasons for changing the rules. Clearly, my dad was of the prescriptivist mindset, I realized during this time. And, though it may have been clear at various points throughout my life, I was also coming to the conclusion that I perhaps viewed rules a little differently.

Rules exist for a reason, right? (Unless we're talking i before e, except after c...or foreign...or ancient, etc. What is that about?) Someone who has been somewhere before us learned a thing or two and wanted to pass along the knowledge, or even just protect themselves from getting into an old sinking sailboat again. But not everything exists in a box. Not everything is the same. Rules are meant to help us, so I like to respect them, consider them, take into account my purpose in communicating as well as the person with whom (did you see what I did there?) I am communicating. Then make choices.

This could mean ending a sentence with a preposition--oy to the vey. Or it might mean I write a fragment or run-on sentence--the horror! And although I may make mistakes or even occasionally begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction for rhetorical purposes, hopefully--wait--I mean, I hope I never use the word snuck. For personal reasons, of course.

Like words, grammar is important. So is asking questions. Use your logic. Remember your humility. Learn all you can from others, and understand why something is important. Then make decisions. We're always learning. It's more fun to break the mold anyway, right?

So there you have it. Grammar in 700 words from a fiction writer's perspective. And you thought you were going to learn something.

Are you more of a rule follower or breaker in your writing?


Punctuation cartoon: http://mysims.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:Wii_maniac/Cyanide_%26_Happiness_Part_2


  1. Hmm. I'm generally a rule follower, except for a few rules. I'm taking a copyediting course and have learned a few things about some the so-called rules. Some, such the "don't end a sentence in a preposition" and don't split infinities) were never real rules. A few hundred years ago, some of the British elite (wanting to emulate the highly regarded Latin) decided that since a sentence never ended in a preposition in Latin, that it shouldn't end in one in English either. It can't be pre- anything if it's at the end of a sentence, after all.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth! You make a great point!

  2. I loved this post, Laura! Ironically, becoming a writer has made me less of a stickler about grammar. Like you, I sometimes think it's more effective to write a fragment instead of a sentence, or structure dialogue more like people actually talk instead of what's grammatically correct. Who would've guessed you and I would be such rule-breakers? :)

    1. Yeah, who'd have guessed? Ha! Thanks for reading, Laurie!

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